Creating an Irish historical fantasy series (Part one)

In May 2014, I was champing at the bit to start a new creative writing project. Feeling somewhat tired and shagged out from publishing Beara Dark Legends (that particular epic took about two years out of my life) however, I was keen to try something different, but different in a way that let me use some of the material I’d collected during my research on Beara. The Fenian Cycle is made up of thousands of narratives collected over hundreds of years from many different Celtic countries. In a creative sense, there are several lifetimes’ worth of material to draw from and despite all the research I’d put into Beara Dark Legends, I felt that I’d barely scratched the surface.

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Initially, I wasn’t sure what aspect of the Fenian Cycle I’d write about but it seemed logical to do a more action-based narrative. The prospect of a simple, linear plot line appealed and I’d been mulling over a fresh – more Irish approach – to what many people think of as ‘Irish mythology’ for years.

The startling truth is that very few contemporary Irish authors actually write Irish historical fiction or Irish historical fantasy for adults. Despite the huge amount of native mythological material available, fewer still revamp or produce contemporary versions of Fenian Cycle stories (although some use elements of it to spring of into their own particular stories).

It’s always struck me as bizarre that although Fionn has probably been the key figure in Irish literature since the sixth century, the Fenian Cycle-related literature that exists on the adult reading market today consists predominantly of:

  •  the republished ‘dry as bones’ sanitized stuff from the Celtic Twilight period (late 1800s to the early 1900s); or
  • modern interpretations of Irish mythology from non-Irish authors.

In terms of reading entertainment, there’s nothing wrong with the above although my research to date suggests that the Irish reader (generally) finds the former a bit childish and patronising and the latter overly romanticised. Although there’ll always be exceptions, neither appear to reflect the aspirations or yearnings of contemporary Irish culture and hold little resonance for Irish people. It seems a bit ironic but most are published to target the international market as opposed to the market from which the material actually originates.

It’s interesting that this trend also appears to be reflected in the mainstream Irish publishing market. Few Irish publishing houses actually publish Irish historical fantasy for adults (to be honest, I don’t actually know of any – but I’m happy to be corrected). It’s unclear whether this is an effective reflection of market taste or simply a case of literary snobbery. No-one’s ever looked close enough to tell so it could be either, neither or both.

The challenge then (as least, as far as I saw it) was to write something that was true to the established mythology but which Irish people wouldn’t snort at in derision, something that downplayed the fantasy elements of the Cycle and focussed on a grittier, more realistic and more culturally authentic narrative.

I’ll tell you how I got on next time.

The Death of Irish Mythological Heroes

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I recently came across this cartoon which quietly tickled my fantasy. In itself, the caricature is quite amusing but the cartoon also effectively captures the immense societal change in in Ireland from pre-history (as in ‘before records were kept’) to the early medieval period. The Cúchulainn and Fionn mac Cumhaill tales all predate the introduction of literature in Ireland and most had probably been circulating in oral recitation for centuries beforehand.

Literature (reading and writing) came to the island with the Church sometime in the fifth century (supposedly with missionaries like Saint Patrick) and helps to clarify how and why religion spread so rapidly. The skills of reading and writing conferred huge advantages to those who learned them, not in terms of improved management or societal standing but also in terms of intellectual interest, etc.). Sadly however, those who controlled the pen also controlled the recording of history and thus the record of many of the existing cultural belief systems were belittled and eventually transformed into children’s stories. Literature was the beginning of the end for early Irish/Celtic belief cultural beliefs and their view of the world in which they lived.

PS: The cartoon is by the talented Scott Maynard of Happletea.com and can be found here